If you want to know what’s going to happen to the European Union, all you have to do is look at what’s happening to Italy.
What do we see? A populist coalition that is broken-backed even before it takes office. Voter anger at a stagnating economy and a failed political elite. Growing social stresses as a result of a sudden influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East.
Perhaps you think Italy doesn’t matter that much. It’s always been a bit of a basket case, hasn’t it? Always teetering on the brink of chaos and collapse, but somehow always managing to survive.
Believe me, Italy matters. It is, after all, the country that gave us Europe’s own Donald Trump a full twenty years before the American version sent shudders around the world. His name was Silvio Berlusconi, and his slogan was Forza Italia, originally a football chant which translates roughly as Let’s Go, Italy. Or, in American, Let’s Make America Great Again.
He was a controversial business tycoon who had originally made his money as a property developer; he was alleged to have some decidedly dodgy connections to the world of organised crime; and he was an unapologetic womaniser with a penchant for making deeply offensive remarks about women. (He once told an opposition politician that she was ‘more beautiful than intelligent’ ― and a hundred thousand people signed a protest petition in response.)
Italians used to be among the EU’s most passionate enthusiasts. As an Italian journalist once explained to me: ‘When you look at the record of our national governments, you’ll understand why we have no problem with giving more power to Brussels.’
Not any more. The financial crash of 2007-8 hit Italy particularly hard and it has still not recovered: it is the only one of the EU’s major economies in which GDP growth per capita is still lower than it was at the time of the crash. Debt as a percentage of GDP is the second highest in the EU after Greece, and in some parts of southern Italy, the unemployment rate is close to thirty per cent.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Italy’s EU partners have utterly failed to help offer sanctuary to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who have risked their lives to escape from war, famine and grinding poverty. An estimated 700,000 people have arrived in Italy by sea from Libya over the past five years, yet all attempts to persuade other EU countries to offer some of them homes have come to nothing.
No wonder Italian voters are now a lot less enthusiastic about Brussels. In last March’s elections, the two parties that did best were both populist: the centre-right alliance dominated by the League, a formerly separatist party based in the north, and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, founded by the former comedian Beppe Grillo.
So now they will try to govern together. Their respective leaders, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, cordially detest each other and have little in common other than their ability to tap into Italian voters’ deep disaffection with traditional politics. It is as if, said one commentator, Nigel Farage and Billy Connolly were to try to form a coalition in Westminster.
If they make a go of it, they will try to introduce economic policies that will induce apoplexy or worse in Brussels and Frankfurt. If they succeed ― and the ifs do start piling up at this point ― the EU could soon face a crisis that would make the post-crash Greek debt crisis look like a minor hiccup.
This isn’t the first time that Italy’s partners have had cause for alarm. Silvio Berlusconi was regarded in his heyday much as Trump is regarded now: unreliable, corrupt, and worryingly close to Moscow. Going back even further, to when I was a correspondent in Rome in the 1970s, Italy often seemed on the brink of acquiring a government coalition in which the Communist party would be included. At the height of the Cold War, that gave Italy’s NATO allies ― and especially Washington ― nightmares.
The election last year of Emmanuel Macron in France and the re-election (just) of Angela Merkel in Germany may have given the impression that Europe’s anti-Brussels populist wave had been halted. It hasn’t. Just take a look at Hungary or Poland ― and if you want to look beyond Europe, how about Narendra Modi in India, Vladimir Putin in Russia, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey?
Look at it this way: the UK, which is the EU’s second biggest economy in GDP terms, is negotiating its exit; Italy, its fourth biggest economy, is about to be governed by a ramshackle coalition that opposes just about all EU economic orthodoxies ― and Germany, the EU’s biggest economy, is ruled by a much-weakened chancellor with the far-right, anti-Brussels Alternative für Deutschland party now the third largest in parliament.
Back in September 2015, as the EU’s problems began to mount, I suggested a new mathematical formula: Greek debt crisis + EU migration crisis + Brexit = end of EU.
And now there’s Italy to add to the equation. Would you bet on the EU still being with us in ten years’ time? I’m not sure I would.